I got my job at MECMC because a contact at a software company I’ve done business with and use for my work knew that MECMC was looking for a guy like me. And so he set it up and I got an interview and poof, I moved to ECC and now I have this awesome new job. He helped me out in part, no doubt, because I have arranged for various institutions to spend something like $50,000 on the company’s products. Maybe more.
Now, he’s asked me to sit in on a software development meeting and help them discuss how to make improvements for a future version of the software. This feels like consulting. So I told him that when I consult, I charge. It feels very strange to ask for money in this situation. But they’re a corporation, asking for my professional expertise.People get paid for that, right? It’s very uncomfortable.
Now, this does of course open up the very real possibility of a conflict of interest. I wouldn’t be being paid to endorse their product, merely to help them make it better. But taking corporate money for consulting might suddenly be seen as a conflict of interest when I do academic work with their products (Although, I also use other commercial products for the same purpose, and I don’t specifically endorse this company’s product.). I’m not sure precisely how this could represent a true conflict of interest, as they produce a decent tool to do the job, and in any case, no one is asking me which product they should buy.
But what matters in conflict of interest training is not necessarily an actual conflict of interest, but a perceived conflict of interest. And disclosing income sources like this is how we ameliorate the conflict. So if I’m taking money from this corporation (even though they are not sponsoring my research, which would be more obviously a conflict to me) I need to tell everyone that they’re paying me so that people can judge for themselves if my conclusions need to have that conflict taken into account.
Of course, all this is very preliminary. Most COI forms don’t require disclosure unless you’re making a decent chunk of change, and so far all they’ve asked for is a one-hour phone call. I can’t charge enough for that to warrant a COI disclosure. And who knows. they might decide that they were willing to take my input for free, but not for cash.
But fundamentally, I feel peculiar and unsettled that I’m of any value at all. Someone asked me to do a thing, and instead of saying “yes” or “no”, I said, “You have to pay me.” That requires that I value myself. That I place a value on myself. That I decide that I have worthwhile enough things to say and contribute that someone should have to give me money to get me to do it. That’s hard. It feels arrogant.
But, of course, I’d never expect anyone to contribute to my work without being paid. I’m even paying student interns who have made it clear that they’d work for free. Why does it feel so different when the tables are turned? Is this part of Impostor Syndrome? “My contributions are valueless and unimportant. Take them for nothing, that’s what they’re worth.” That’s how I feel, a lot of the time. Most of the time.